Is the Ohio Senate Intent on Running Out the Clock to Enable Vast Voucher Expansion on April 1?

Yesterday a member of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial board, Thomas Suddes commented on problems in the Ohio Legislature, but he wasn’t describing merely the delays imposed by the coronavirus, which has stopped the Legislature from meeting and eliminated in-person deliberation and voting. The headline on Suddes’ column in the print edition of the newspaper says: “A Crisis Brings to Light Where Legislature Has Come Up Short.”

Suddes’ column emphasizes Ohio’s current constitutional dilemma.  Last week, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Governor delayed the primary election, but House Speaker Larry Householder believes: “Legal authority to change the date rests with the Ohio General Assembly—not the courts and not via executive fiat.”  In Ohio, legislators are not permitted to vote except in person, which means that Householder is pushing to have the legislators come into a short session, despite the danger of viral transmission during an in-person meeting, just to set a date for the primary election. But scheduling the primary election is not the only matter unresolved by the Ohio Legislature.

Suddes reminds readers that legislative dysfunction has affected a number of other important matters including public education policy: “As for rescheduling the primary, it’d be easier to have confidence in the General Assembly if it would stop yammering and start legislating. For instance, if you haven’t heard from your school superintendent about the financial mess your district faces thanks to Ohio’s school voucher circus, you haven’t been listening. Legislation to address that is stalled in the legislature”

Here is a short summary of the Legislature’s failure on EdChoice vouchers, a debacle which has created a crisis for Ohio’s school districts and left the Ohio Legislature blocked.  It is a disagreement among Ohio Republicans who dominate both legislative chambers.  Last summer in the final hours of the biennial budget conference committee, someone introduced an amendment to explode the number of EdChoice vouchers to be awarded by the state to students to pay for private school tuition.  EdChoice vouchers are awarded to students in the attendance zones of public schools the state deems failing (EdChoice Designated schools) in one of several categories on a state report card, but nearly everyone agrees that the report card algorithms grossly overstate the faults of Ohio’s public schools. Due to the voucher expansion inserted surreptitiously into the state budget, the number of EdChoice Designated public schools increased from 255 last school year (2018-2019) to 517 this year (2019-2020), and that number is due to explode to over 1,200 schools for next school year (2020-2021). Two-thirds of all the state’s school districts will have at least one EdChoice Designated school next school year unless the Legislature stops the voucher expansion. The Legislature was supposed to address the problem by February 1, 2020, but it awarded itself a two month extension until April 1, 2020—a little more than a week from today.

The problem is complicated by other changes the Legislature made in the budget. While previously a student must have been enrolled in a public school in order to qualify to take a voucher from that school district, now any high school student living in the zone of a Designated EdChoice school can qualify for a voucher, even if that student has never attended the public school in question. This year thousands of high school students who have always attended private and religious schools qualified for a voucher to pay their private school tuition. That number will grow rapidly unless the Legislature stops the massive voucher expansion that will go into effect on April 1, 2020.

There is another special problem with the EdChoice vouchers in Ohio. They are funded by a school district deduction; they are not paid for out of the state budget.  Because of the way the Ohio school funding formula works, in a lot of school districts, the vouchers—$4,650 for each K-8 student and $6,000 for each high school student—are worth more than the state aid for that student.  And to make matters worse, in the same state budget that expanded the vouchers, the Legislature froze state formula aid to school districts at the 2019 level: School districts, now required to award vouchers to thousands of students who have never been enrolled in their school districts, are getting no state per-pupil dollars to cover even part of those students’ vouchers. And once a student has a voucher, he or she is entitled to keep the voucher every year, paid for by the local school district, until the student graduates.

(For a more detailed explanation of the Ohio EdChoice voucher crisis, see here, here, here, here, and here.)

The Ohio House and the Ohio Senate each passed its own plan to mitigate the explosive growth for next school year in the EdChoice voucher program, but the Senate summarily rejected the Ohio House’s plan.  A conference committee met for 10 sessions and heard testimony on the matter from 400 citizens—some representing public school districts facing budgetary collapse, and some representing voucher advocates and private school representatives expecting to enroll more students carrying vouchers.  Then legislative negotiations seemed to die.  All reports suggest there is an impasse.

On March 14, just prior to the now cancelled primary election in which a number of Ohio school districts had property tax levies on the ballot for the purpose of paying for the state-mandated voucher expansion that the state has chosen not to pay for, the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell focused on the Cleveland Heights-University Heights proposed levy to raise local taxes by $8 million to cover the district’s $7.1 million voucher costs. Of the state’s 610 school districts, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district is hit the hardest by the expansion of vouchers this year, although O’Donnell covers other school districts in the Cleveland metropolitan area with levies on the ballot to pay for the costs. (All of those levy campaigns are currently unresolved due to the delay of the 2020 Ohio Primary Election.)

O’Donnell highlights a shocking reality: When the Legislature inserted explosive voucher growth as a last minute budget amendment, nobody tabulated the aggregate cost to the state’s 610 local school districts of the voucher expansion paid for by the local school district deduction. O’Donnell reports that State. Rep. Don Jones, currently the chair of the House Education Committee, now says that the state of Ohio cannot possibly afford fully to absorb what appears to be an enormous expense: “(T)he state legislature remains deadlocked over which students will be eligible for vouchers… and who should pay for it, the state or local districts.  Six weeks after giving themselves 60 days to find a resolution, the Ohio House and Senate still have competing proposals, but aren’t meeting to find a compromise. They don’t even have key financial data… a clear accounting of how much vouchers are costing the state and districts this year, or any projections of what the different House and Senate plans would cost in the future… State Rep. Don Jones, chairman of the House Education Committee… also chairman of the joint House and Senate committee that is trying to find a voucher compromise (explains): ‘I don’t like the fact that we’ve got schools like Cleveland Heights (which is) losing $7 million,’ Jones said.  But he cautioned: ‘If I could pick up all those districts… the state would be taking on a huge responsibility. They’re going to be on the books for those kids until they leave in 8th grade or until they graduate.'”

The Ohio Senate’s original plan would more modestly have prevented the voucher increase for next year from growing to all the way to 1,200 and would have frozen the number of EdChoice vouchers available while a legislative committee was established to study problems with the state report cards which determine the state performance ratings by which public schools are designated for EdChoice. But it is known that key state senators are intent on growing the voucher program no matter what.

The Ohio House plan, passed in early February and immediately rejected by the Ohio Senate, would offer at least partial protection for Ohio’s public school districts. The House plan would phase out the current EdChoice Vouchers; end the awarding of vouchers based on the state school district report card; phase out the school district deduction method of funding; and award all future vouchers under a new, fully state-funded Buckeye Opportunity Scholarship program based on family income—at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. Only students currently carrying an EdChoice voucher (and their siblings) would continue to have their vouchers paid for by a school district deduction. The proposed House plan, therefore, would leave a significant—but much reduced— burden on local school districts already losing a large amount of local school district funding to the EdChoice program. The Ohio House plan, while imperfect, goes a long way to protecting the rights of Ohio’s 1,660,354 public school students to a public school education.

Public school districts losing millions of dollars to vouchers inevitably must increase class sizes; reduce essential staff who work with students—counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses; cut curricular enrichments like school newspapers, music, drama and the visual arts; and eliminate sports programs. The Ohio Constitution requires the state to provide a thorough and efficient system of public schools; it does not promise that the state will use tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. Despite the coronavirus, the Ohio Legislature needs to come back into session this week to protect the state’s public schools by preventing the vast expansion—scheduled to take place on April 1, 2020—of EdChoice vouchers. And the members of the Legislature ought to consider their constitutional responsibility for public education by passing at least the essential components of the House plan: The Legislature needs to stop basing vouchers on the state report cards and to phase out the school district deduction by funding new vouchers through the state budget. Districts whose budgets were gouged during the current school year by explosive growth in EdChoice vouchers also need retroactive assistance.

Unless Ohio’s legislators find a way this week to address the EdChoice voucher crisis, one has to assume that the pro-voucher ideologues in the Ohio Senate intend to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to allow—on April 1, 2020— the total number of Ohio’s EdChoice Designated public schools to grow to 1,200.

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With Voucher Impasse, Ohio Legislature Abrogates It’s Constitutional Responsibility for Our Public Schools

Ohio’s House and Senate are stuck. They even seem to have stopped arguing about their two different plans to end a public school crisis caused by the surreptitious expansion last summer (in the conference committee on the state budget) of the EdChoice school voucher program. On February 1st, students were due to have begun registering for a whole new round of vouchers for next year, with eligibility expanded to a whole new group of students, but in late January the Senate created one plan to reshape the program and the House designed another plan. The Legislature gave itself two months—until April 1— to work out the differences. But here we are in mid-March without any progress toward a compromise.  And neither plan would really do what is necessary to support the school districts the state legislature has trapped in this crisis.

When Ohio state senators describe the problem, they seem to forget about the 1,660,354 students enrolled in the state’s public schools. The senators’ comments betray their sympathy with parents who would like an EdChoice voucher to pay for tuition at a private or religious school.  “Why should these parents have to wait until the first of April to begin applying?” ask the state senators. “Why should they be left without being able to make plans?”  Ohio’s state senators justify their support of vouchers with a “money should follow the child” theory consistent with Betsy DeVos’s contention that we need to worry about each child and each family and cease focusing on the system.

Bruce Baker, the Rutgers University school finance expert, explains the central flaw in this sort of thinking: “The ‘money belongs to the child’ claim… falsely assumes that the only expenses associated with each individual’s education choice are the current annual expenses of educating that individual…. It ignores entirely marginal costs and economies of scale, foundational elements of origins of public institutions.  We collect tax dollars and provide public goods and services because it allows us to do so at an efficient scale of operations. The tax dollars collected belong to (are governed or controlled by) the democratically governed community (local, state, federal) that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars, which are to be distributed according to the… preferred goods and services… of that community within the constraints of the law.  Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now.  Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt… do not belong exclusively to those parents.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, p. 30)

Maybe it is easier for the members of Ohio’s legislature not to worry so much about the current crisis across the state’s school districts because In Ohio, the EdChoice voucher program at the center of the massive voucher mess is not funded directly by the state. Conveniently the Legislature created a school district deduction, and school districts, which have already watched money flow out of their schools this year are faced with catastrophic local budget losses if the program expands on April 1.  If the Legislature does nothing, the EdChoice vouchers will multiply in a way that will deplete the local budgets of two-thirds of Ohio’s 610 school districts. Inequity will also become a more serious problem, because the districts hurt the worst are the ones that serve many of the state’s poorest children.

Bruce Baker is a national school finance expert.  Howard Fleeter, a respected Columbus school funding expert who leads the Ohio Education Policy Institute, is extremely concerned about the implications of vouchers in our state.  In January, Fleeter reviewed changes in the EdChoice voucher program and wrote the clearest explanation I’ve read of a very confusing set of issues.  Fleeter writes On the Money, a regular (but paywalled) report for the Columbus Hannah News Service. Recently the Delphos School District reposted Fleeter’s January report on the potential implications of the EdChoice voucher expansion where we can all read it. While Fleeter’s report is now two months old, not a thing has changed as the Ohio Legislature argues, dithers, and delays, despite ten long formal hearings where legislators heard testimony from 400 concerned citizens.

The EdChoice program has grown rapidly—from 3,100 students in 2006 to nearly 30,000 this school year.  Fleeter explains that the EdChoice voucher program counts voucher students as though they are enrolled in their assigned local neighborhood school. Then, the full voucher amount ($4,650 for each student in grades K-8 and $6,000 for each high school student) is deducted from the state aid that the district is slated to receive and turned into a voucher to pay private school tuition: “The deduction funding method has engendered frequent complaints… because the state aid received by the district as a result of including a voucher student is typically less than the amount that is deducted.”  Fleeter adds that during this school year, the deduction method of funding EdChoice vouchers has become particularly threatening for school districts under the biennial budget passed last summer because the budget froze state aid for schools at last year’s amount:  “As a result, any increase in the number of voucher students in FY20 or FY21 as compared to FY 19 means that the district will simply lose the entire additional voucher deduction amount. Thus, school districts that experience an increase in voucher use by resident students in FY 20 are not really guaranteed FY19 funding levels as HB166 (the budget bill) intended.”

Fleeter identifies two additional problems that have driven the catastrophic voucher crisis across Ohio’s school districts this winter.

EdChoice vouchers were supposedly created to give students an escape if they attend a so-called “failing” school.  The first problem with the EdChoice vouchers is that the Legislature has changed the criteria for designating an underperforming school. To qualify for an EdChoice voucher, a student must live in the attendance zone of a school deemed “underperforming” by the state. That number has rapidly grown from 255 schools last school year, to 517 this school year. Next year, if the Legislature does nothing by April 1, 2020, over 1,200 buildings will be EdChoice Designated Schools.

Fleeter explains that all this is based on having just one “failing” state report card grade during a three year period in any of a number of state report card rating categories.  The state report card ratings are based on convoluted algorithms and their validity questionable.  Here are the ratings that determine EdChoice designation—a D or F grade Overall—an F in Value-Added—a Performance Index in the bottom 10 percent of buildings—a four-year graduation rate of D or F—a K-3 Literacy Grade of D or F—or the building is under an Academic Distress Commission.  “(A) building is now EdChoice eligible if it meets any one of the above listed criteria… (T)he inclusion of the K-3 Literacy criteria is… problematic because this measure is widely considered to be seriously flawed.”   And the state has complicated the qualification criteria further by leaving out data from school years 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17, because a new standardized test had been introduced.  This year schools are being judged on grades the state awarded in the 2013-14, 2017-18, and 2018-19 school years.  Fleeter argues: “The use of data that is 6 years out-of-date is by itself inappropriate…. (It) also means that any improvement shown by districts as they adjusted to the new assessments is also not considered.”

Second, the budget passed last summer radically expanded the number of students eligible to qualify for a voucher. Fleeter explains that before this school year, “(T)he EdChoice voucher program has required that in order to qualify for a voucher the student must have attended an EdChoice eligible public school in the preceding year… (T)he only exception… has been for Kindergarten students for whom Kindergarten is (obviously) their first year in school… However, beginning (this school year), high school students who have never attended a public school are now eligible to receive a voucher to attend a private high school.” In one school year, the number of applications by high school students for an EdChoice Voucher has grown by 75 percent. “Not only has the elimination of the requirement that high school students had to have been in a qualifying public school in the prior year resulted in an increase in EdChoice vouchers, it is providing these vouchers to families who already have their children in private schools… This is not expansion of educational choice to those without the means to exercise it themselves; it is merely a handout to families who have already shown they can do it themselves.” (emphasis in the original)

Fleeter summarizes: “Due to ill-considered changes to the criteria for designating schools as ‘underperforming,’ an unprecedented change in the eligibility criteria for private high school students that undermines the only defensible argument of the EdChoice program itself, and an apparent failure to understand the impact of freezing the school funding formula in the current biennium, Ohio policymakers have created a situation where two thirds of the state’s districts and schools… stand to be EdChoice eligible… (next school year) and the districts themselves—rather than the state—will be left paying for these modifications.”

Fleeter grew up in the same school district where I currently live and where my children were educated—the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools— an inner-ring suburban school district in Cleveland.  In the report, Fleeter cites the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Schools as an example of the EdChoice Voucher crisis this year: “The total number of voucher applications in Cleveland Heights increased from 890 in FY 19 (last school year) to 1414 in FY 20 (this school year). Sixty-five percent of these applications were high school students.  However, virtually all of these students (both K-8 and high school) attend… religiously affiliated schools…. Very few—if any—of these students have ever attended one of the public schools in this school district….”

Next Tuesday, in the March 17, Ohio primary election, the citizens of Cleveland Heights and University Heights will vote on a local school levy.  In January at a public meeting, members of the school board explained the necessity of putting a local property tax levy on the ballot at this time: “The CH-UH City School District will ask the community for a new 7.9 mill operating levy in March. The current funding issues with EdChoice are the major reason for this millage. In fact, the District would not need to ask for a levy until 2023 if it weren’t for the way EdChoice was funded, and the millage would be significantly less.”

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights school levy is on the ballot to pay for vouchers for a few and to try to protect services for the many—the 5,136 students enrolled in our community’s public schools. The levy committee’s literature explains that if the levy fails, the “Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools will be forced to make drastic cuts to offset lost state funding, which could include: closing school buildings, increasing student/teacher ratio, decreasing 1-on-1 instruction, canceling proven programs, and limiting sports, arts, music and transportation. These cuts will hurt every student in every classroom.”